As scientists begin to reexamine the pages of historic texts, they’re learning remarkable things about the people who once handled these ancient documents -- including at D.C.'s Folger Library.
It’s a dish found in diverse cultures — from Pakistan to Iran to Washington: the kebab. In some corners of the capital area, kebabs are every bit as popular as hamburgers or pizza — whether they’re made with lamb or chicken and served with rice or hummus. We explore the melting pot of cultures that have contributed D.C.’s kebab explosion.
- Todd Kliman Food and Wine Editor and Restaurant Critic, Washingtonian Magazine
- Mohammad Afzal Owner, Ravi Kabob (Arlington, Va.)
- A.R. Atash-Sobh Shamshiry Restaurant (Vienna, Va.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For a lot of Americans, the Muslim world remains difficult to understand, a seemingly opaque collection of countries with mysterious politics, countries at the center of some of the most complicated conflicts in the world. But the food that defines so many places, and more specifically the humble kabob, couldn't be any more understandable for American eaters. Carefully crafted combinations of skewered grilled meat that's satisfied dinner tables in Arlington every bit as much as they do in Tehran or Islamabad. In some corridors of the Washington Region, kabobs even seem to be more popular than hamburgers, the quintessentially American cuisine.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore how kabobs conquered the Washington area and the windows that food provide into the cultures that make up the capitol city is Todd Kliman, Food and Dining Editor at Washingtonian Magazine. Todd, good to see you.
MR. TODD KLIMANGood to see you, Kojo. Thank you for having me on.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Mohammad Afzal. He is the owner of Ravi Kabob in Arlington, Va. He joins us in studio. Mohammad Afzal, good to have you aboard.
MR. MOHAMMAD AFZALThank you, sir.
NNAMDIAnd also with us in studio is A.R. Atash-Sobh. He works at Shamshiry Restaurant owned by his father, Bijan Atash-Sobh in the Tyson's corner area of Virginia. Did I pronounce Shamshiry correctly?
MR. A.R. ATASH-SOBHYes, sir.
NNAMDIAll right. A.R., good to have you in studio.
ATASH-SOBHPleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation at 800-433-8850 to share your own kabob experience. What do you think explains the booming popularity of kabob houses in the Washington Region? 800-433-8850. Todd, a lot of people are intimated by the idea of ethnic eating, whether you're talking about raw fish or piping hot curries. But when it comes to the kabob meal it's like we're talking about a language that people around the world can understand. Grilled meats, soft rice, carefully crafted bread. What is it about the kebab that you think makes it so universal?
KLIMANI think it just translates. It's one of those foods that really does translate. Not every food, not every cuisine translates. We've talked here in studio about Korean food and sometimes the difficulty that Western audiences have in trying to fully embrace it. But kabobs, you know, we're a meat-eating culture. We're a very carnivorous people.
KLIMANAnd I think the thing is you go to a kabob house and you get a, you know, big hunk of meat. And it -- we were talking just outside the studio, Mohammad and A.R. -- the nature of the charcoal-grilled kabob. Well, that is just going to call to people, I think whether they know anything about the culture of the owners in Pakistan that you would see at Ravi Kabob. They're going to understand that charcoal taste, I think, from picnics and from family retreats.
KLIMANAnd so these are just very kind of primal pleasures. And, you know, it's interesting too, If you think about it. We were talking about the popularity of these kabob houses, particularly in Virginia. We just completed the Cheap Eats Issue at Washingtonian. One-hundred restaurants, it's a year-long project. We're going out all over the place. We're eating at some of these restaurants two, three, four times. And it's a fun project. It's a draining project at the end, but...
NNAMDIYeah, it's really hard to go out and eat all the time, yeah.
KLIMANIt's hard to eat all the time. But it's interesting to think about this. We had -- on that list there were seven kabob houses that made the final cut. There were four burger places that made the final cut. Seven. That equals the number of pizzerias that made the final cut.
NNAMDIWhen did this happen? Where do you think the kabob fits into the dishes that define Washington's culinary identity and when do you think it took that place? When did this (unintelligible) ?
KLIMANThis is all in the last decade. This is all in the last decade. And I think what you see is it mirrors the real influx of Middle Eastern immigrants and Eastern immigrants coming in and settling in Virginia. I mean, the kabob phenomenon is really a Northern Virginia phenomenon. You don't see it in the city. You don't see too much of it in Maryland although there is the terrific Kabob N Karahi in Cloverly. And there's Maiwand Kabob in Burtonsville. But most of the action is in Virginia and it's really reflective of...
NNAMDIWell, a lot of people depend on your guidance and your pallet for this. When you go out for kabobs in Washington, you've got a lot of choices, a lot of styles to choose from, Persian, Pakistan, Afghan. What is it that you're looking for when you have a craving and how do you judge a kabob?
KLIMANBoy, that's tough. Well, you're looking at certain things and you've eaten very -- the thing to say here is that there are a lot of good kabobs in this area. One of the things that I like to see is I like to see -- particularly if it's a Pakistani kabob house -- I want to see the charcoal. And that is a hard thing to find because not everyone has the resources to do that. That's going to give the kabob an unmistakable flavor.
MR. BILL MCKIBBENYou can tell when you're eating a great kabob. You get real great, you know, penetration from a marinade in there and, you know, it's not just a hunk of overcooked meat. There's a lot that goes into it. There's a real -- I won't say it's an art. I think that word is overused. But there's real, real skill to make a cut of thin meat succulent.
NNAMDIAnd we ask our audience where do you go when you have a craving for a good kabob? Call us at 800-433-8850. Go to our website kojoshow.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Mohammad, I read a piece that Todd wrote that you opened Ravi Kabob in 1997 when there was a lot less competition. And that you partnered with an ethnic Afghan who grew up in Pakistan. What was your vision for your restaurant when you started? And what do you think explains its success?
AFZALWell, when I start 1997, we thought about I have to have one Pakistani kabob house in the area 'cause we don't have so many Pakistani kabob -- or used to we have, like, one kabob and Persian. And I put in my mind and I start in 1997. What is the success behind that food? I learning a lot from my own family, which is my mother and my wife. They have been a lot when I like teenager and come to United States.
AFZALAnd I like to have, like, fun and like -- love to have cooked the food. And every time, if I want to cook something, I call back home and...
AFZAL...mom. So my mama, she's good cook, but she's not in life now. That is the everything secret behind this -- I mean, Ravi Kabob.
NNAMDIYour partner, Abdul Bal Alnoor is an ethnic Afghan who owns the Arlington Grocery and Halal Meat Center. What role does he play? You're the one who likes to cook and feed people. What role does your partner play?
AFZALHe's the one of the looking for big enough my absent if I'm not there. They look around the business for the deliveries. And look after (word?) department and banking. So I think that is good for him. In other words, he don't know how to cook the eggs.
NNAMDIOh, I'm waiting to hear his version of this story. I'm waiting to hear what...
AFZALYeah, well, he's good.
NNAMDIWhat were your expectations for how food from your country with your recipes would sell in Washington once you had the restaurant up and running? Were you confident that it would become popular?
AFZALYes. Because there is enough those the way I cook (unintelligible) they are looking for, they always say thanks, we have very good food. I can see the taste of food, like some different countries' food and I know how to make the food. I always see, like, my friends and family. And this is something, like, by heart if you wanted to cook something. And you're really interested, that you know what spicing you are using and the taste just there. And that is Ravi's secret for almost 15 year that people like to come again, again, again. People are traveling from New York to New Jersey to Richmond to go to Ravi Kabob. I think that is something secret what we maintaining the spice and taste.
NNAMDIAnd only growing. A.R., you are a second generation kind of story. Your father is Iranian, but you were born in this area. You grew up here while your dad pursued his dream of running a business. What has Shamshiry meant to your family and its story over the years?
ATASH-SOBHWell, my father started it back in 1993. He's always been in the restaurant business ever since the early '80s. He had another restaurant in Alexandria. And this was just for fun pretty much. He had this recipe he brought over from his home country. I mean, he had no idea it was going to do as well as it did. And the location, anybody will tell you, it's pretty bad. It's kind of hidden in the corner. But the food was just so good and people really enjoyed it so they found it. And, you know, every day there's usually a line if you come in the evening time, especially now. And everybody seems to like it.
ATASH-SOBHAnd thanks to people like Todd who's been there before and they've written some really nice stuff for us and they put the information out. And people obviously read his columns and...
NNAMDITodd is a great finder.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you only recently started working at Shamshiry...
ATASH-SOBHYes. Yeah, (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDI...that you came to the restaurant after you had served in the U.S. Navy, that you're working at the restaurant while taking classes to get your degree at George Mason. What kind of a window has working there now given you into the world of your family, the world that your family came from and the community that it's a part of now?
ATASH-SOBHWell, I just -- it's just like a land of opportunity. It really is. I mean, I'm almost finished at Mason but I don't even feel like I need to finish anymore. I mean, it's just -- the business is -- it's ridiculous. I mean, it's hard to keep up with everybody. It just -- the influx of all these people like almost every single day and it's really -- it gave me an appreciation for my father's business. And...
NNAMDIYou grew up, it's my understanding, eating spaghetti just as much as you were eating anything else.
ATASH-SOBHRight. Michael told you that.
NNAMDIOh, yeah, Michael tells me everything. So this is a new world, in a way, that you were getting into.
ATASH-SOBHRight, it is. I'm embarrassed to say I don't know everything about this business quite yet. I'm still learning every day. But I really feel blessed. It just -- it's just doing superb.
NNAMDIHey, Mohammad had his mom, you've got your father. Todd, you've talked a lot in this broadcast and you implied earlier when you were talking about barbecue. You've written about barbecues' importance as a family tradition in your own home growing up. And you say that you see a lot of similarities between great barbecue and great kabobs. When you started talking about the charcoal earlier I began to pick that up.
KLIMANI think -- yeah, I think it's there. I mean, it's -- barbecue is food that you can't, as a cook, really hide behind. And I think kabobs are the same way. You know, it -- you've got to have a good choice of meat, and all the best kebab houses in the area use halal meat. Charcoal is really essentially to get that kind of extra something into the kebab. You know, a really good marinade, which Mohammad may share on air here today.
NNAMDII doubt it.
KLIMANYou know, and these things are very, very important. And then having a, you know, a pit master, if you will, who is really going to, you know, really tend that meat with some care. One thing I think needs to be said about both these restaurants, and many of the restaurants that we're talking about, even if we're not naming them specifically is that it's not just meat.
KLIMANYou know, Shamshiry has some of the best rice dishes you're going to eat. The naan, the hot, blistered round of bread that you get at Ravis is fantastic. I mean, I could just eat that with a little bit of salad. There's a dish also at Ravi that I find myself craving every once in awhile. It's chana masala, it's a chickpea dish. It's a -- think of it as kind of a chickpea stew, or chickpea curry.
NNAMDILove chana masala.
KLIMANThese are fantastic dishes. Also, I should point out the saffron ice cream at Shamshiry which is really, really just very unusual if you've grown up on, you know, vanilla and chocolate and strawberry, and just very evocative and wonderful with its little hits of rosewater. And so...
NNAMDIYeah. I'm told that A.R. likes it a lot. Let's go the telephones. We will start with CJ in Rockville, Md. CJ, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CJAfternoon, Kojo. How you doing?
CJGood. Two things. One, you guys touched a little bit on this earlier, but I believe that the increase in these kebab restaurants is due to the fact that, you know, this area is so diverse and ethnic, it's actually a surprise it took, well, almost a decade now for these to really pop up, so that's my first. And the second, I live in Rockville, and there is a great, great kebab restaurant right on Rockville Pike called Sam's Café, and the cool thing about that is it's actually a Middle Eastern international market where they sell all types of food to make your own kebab, and they sell hookah, and they do all this stuff.
CJI think it's just a great -- a great night, really, you know. Just grab a hookah and some kebab, and I could literally sit there for hours and eat that, it's just great.
NNAMDIWell, thank you so much for your call, CJ. I wanted to go to Mozaru (sp?) in Springfield, Va., because he will I think have a comment that relates particularly to A.R.'s experience. Mozaru, go ahead, please.
MOZARUMy perception is, and it's true, that our invasion to Middle East has brought a lot of American soldiers to Middle East, and have introduced them to the Middle Eastern food, and I have there is a small restaurant called Food Factory, unassuming store, but at lunch time it is inundated by none other than U.S. Army. And this -- U.S. Army, thanks to the Pentagon, they have brought the kebab and the biryanis and the baba ganoush, all this food to USA.
NNAMDIWell, you know, A.R. was in the Navy. He served in Italy, and he never actually served in the war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan. But have you heard this before, people who say that it is because people have served?
ATASH-SOBHYeah. We get a lot of customers from the services that they served overseas, especially in the Middle East, and they just got accustomed to the food. I have a friend right now in Afghanistan, and he should be coming any hour actually, today, but he just got so used to eating it, and he can't wait to come home to come to my restaurant.
NNAMDIAnd welcome back to him. We are going to take a short break. When we come back, Mohammad is going to give away some trade secrets about what his recipes for marinating are. We're talking about kebabs and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday. We're talking kebabs with Todd Kliman, food and dining editor at the Washingtonian magazine, A.R. Atash-Sobh works at Shamshiry, a restaurant owned by his father, Bijan Atash-Sobh in the Tyson's Corner area of Virginia, and also in studio with us, is Mohammad Afzal. He is the owner of Ravi Kabab in Arlington, Va. Mohammad, can you give away some trade secrets? What can you tell us about what goes into how you prepare your meat?
AFZALYou can say love. Love.
KLIMANCan we quantify love?
AFZALThe first thing you have to buy good quality of meat. You have to pay more. You buy good halal meat, what we are serve, like 100 percent halal meat. We pay more. And then, you have to cut it by from our butcher, which is a very nice cube, and take of all the fat and clean it up, and the marinade we -- our secret is like I tell to...
NNAMDITo Todd over here?
AFZAL...Todd, about 15 hours.
NNAMDIFifteen hours of marination?
AFZALMarination, which we use, like, our own spice. We don't buy any like brand names or like in the bag, no. We brought our open spice, which is that we use black pepper, as finely we can buy from here, garlic -- fresh garlic, fresh ginger and onion. So we blend it up with garlic juice, and we marinate it about 15 hours. So that has brought you very good flame and taste and (word?) .
NNAMDII have a way of checking out the authenticity of this without actually going to the restaurant. Here is Maroon in Herndon, Va. Maroon, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Maroon, are you there?
NNAMDIPlease go ahead.
MAROONYes, sir. Hi. I'm daughter of Mr. Mohammad Afzal who is at the show with you right now.
AFZALI love you, honey.
MAROONAnd I'm listening -- and I was listening to the show, and I'm so excited about him and, you know, he is a great, great cook. I'm not saying it as being his daughter, but I'm sure you tried his paste also, and he's a very determined person, very hard work person. I'm so proud of him, and I love his kebabs.
NNAMDIWell, we are just glad that she shared some of his secrets with us, and I brought you on to make sure that he is...
MAROONHe gave you them. That's so nice of him, you know. He was telling all the -- he said secretly, but that's really nice of him, you know. I'm sure you're gonna try them at home.
KLIMANAnd of course they won't be any good.
NNAMDIBecause we are not -- we are not your dad. But thank you so much for calling. It obviously means that you respect and hold your father in very high regard...
NNAMDI...in addition clearly to loving him. So thank you very much for your call.
MAROONOh, thank you for having him there and, you know, I'm so proud of him. I love you, Dad, and good luck.
AFZALOkay. Same to you (word?) .
NNAMDIA.R., what have you learned about how Shamshiry approaches meat from the time you've been working there so far?
ATASH-SOBHIt's really expensive. It just -- the ingredients we use, for example, we serve an item called barg, which I think every traditional Persian restaurant has. It's a filet mignon steak cut thin, but it's just so expensive nowadays that we actually lose money. We don't make a profit. We actually lose on it, and it's used as a showcase because we have customers that come in just for it. So yeah.
NNAMDII'm glad you said expensive, because before we came into this segment, Todd Kliman and I decided that he wanted to talk about value. Here it is, he just brought it up.
KLIMANWell, kebab houses are generally a great value. I was thinking recently about this because I went to -- I don't know if we should name names. I went to a new burger place that is a, you know, it's just come down here from New York. It's Danny Meyer's Shake Shack on DuPont Circle.
ATASH-SOBHHere is that? Is it open yet?
KLIMANIt is open. It is open.
ATASH-SOBHMadison Square Park.
KLIMANYeah. Yeah. And the lines in Madison Square Park go twisting around the restaurant and then practically out the park. There was for a while a web cam to monitor the lines, so you would know when to go and get your burger. They do a great job. The burger has that -- kind of that boardwalk smell to it. I don't want to say anything bad about them. I think they're doing a fine job, but two burgers, two fries and two milkshakes, my wife and I had a couple weeks ago was $28.
ATASH-SOBHBoy, that's too expensive.
NNAMDIAs opposed to...
KLIMANAs opposed to going to one of these restaurants and getting a wonderful platter of beautifully steamed Basmati rice with a little bit of butter in it and some sumac on top. And kebabs, I mean, we're not talking about just a few chunks of meat, but a really long ruler length kebab, maybe a small salad on the side. That's a tremendous value in this day and age when you cannot get a hot meal -- a hot balanced wholesome meal, you're eating, you know, fast food.
KLIMANAnd so, I think this is the other element here besides just this being some kind of primal pleasure is that I think people appreciate that. It's so hard to get, particularly at an American restaurant, particularly in this city where most restaurants for two people that are any good are gonna cost you about $90 to $100 for two for a meal. You go to a kebab house and you're clocking in probably about $25.
NNAMDIAisha in Gainesville, Va., you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Aisha, can you hear me?
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Aisha, you're on the air.
AISHAOkay. I just wanted to call in, we were listening to Mr. Mohammad about Ravi Kabob House and I just wanted to say an appreciate that great their food is, and we go there all the time, and I want to say hello Mr. Mohammad. We really love your food, and I actually have friends and family coming over all the way from New York, New Jersey, and even Pennsylvania.
AISHAThey just love their food and they're here all the time and they just want to go there and eat there all the time, especially their chickpeas, they have these chickpeas with the bread, and everybody just loves those. I just wanted to say that, keep up the good work, and I hope they open more branches, especially in my area, Gainesville, so we can go there all the time.
NNAMDIAny plans to open more branches, Mohammad Afzal?
AFZALYes, sir. I'm looking for a space in Rockville, Md. The people ask me a lot because we have so many client came from Maryland, and they keep telling me they're very happy to have one location in Rockville. Because I used to have six location, like he said, mister -- Shamshiry is very hard work. It's not -- you can't contain it .
AFZALYou know, it's like three restaurants you gonna have to be too crazy wife.
KLIMANI hope Aisha is still listening because...
KLIMAN...she's in Gainesville. There's a terrific kebab house in Gainesville called Afghan Famous which just made our Cheap Eats List of the top 100 bargain restaurants. I think they do a terrific job there.
NNAMDIThere you go, Aisha. Thank you so much for your call. Here is Sean in Arlington, Va. Sean, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
SEANHi, Kojo. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can, Sean.
SEANHi, Kojo. First of all, I'd like to compliment you on making a lot of Muslims around the Washington D.C. area very, very hungry today during Ramadan.
NNAMDIHey, you only got -- you only got about six hours before it gets dark.
AFZALBut we have free iftar every day to Ravi Kabob. Every day free iftar.
KLIMANIt's a test of your discipline.
NNAMDIHey, go ahead, Sean.
SEANI've spent a number of years, about nine years in Afghanistan and had the opportunity to eat kebabs there off the streets in many of the different cities, and I've always enjoyed that as one of the things there. And the question I have for you guest is, what is the difference between the Pakistani style of marinating the meat, or Iranian or whatever, and a lot of the dry rubs that you find in Afghanistan?
SEANI mean, I recognize that refrigeration is difficult in places like Afghanistan, and so they use the dry rub, but are the same ingredients in the dry rub that you find in the Pakistani marinade? And also, you know, is there a difference between cooking beef kebabs which can tend to dry out, versus lamb kebabs which have much more fat in the meat. Thank you for taking my call.
AFZALIf you stop by Ravi Kabob House you can find out the way we use our meat, which is a lamb kebab you're talking about. We don't use any fat like I say. We buy the best quality of meat. We pay more and we are using 100 percent halal, and at the time before we cut it it's beautiful cube and we take off the fat, and...
NNAMDIAny difference between the Afghan...
AFZALPakistani and Afghani like different of spice. We are a little bit more spicy food. We use more spice, and (word?) like a Persian food, like kebab and chickens, they're using like less spicy. That is the difference.
NNAMDIOn therefore, and you'll really appreciate this call, Kava (sp?) in McLean, Va. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KAVAHi Kojo. Great show. I listen to your show a lot and I always want to call in, but this one is near and dear to my heart, talking about kebabs. I remember -- as a comment, as a student when I moved to United States back in the late '70s there were like one place open in Alexandria that sold me kebab, and then it was very interesting to see how there's more and more places that opened.
KAVAThere was a place in Georgetown too for awhile that was serving it, and it was always a pleasure to go to these places because it reminded us as, you know, young men that were here, of home. And nowadays, it seems like it's become so popular. When I talk to my friends, you know, around McLean, you know, the kids love it. You know, it's the best food that they can put in front of them, and for the most part, other than a lot of meat, it's also very healthy. So basically my comment is, you know, there's so many choices around, and it's...
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad, because we're running out of time, and Todd Kliman, you grew up in this area, so you experienced the same thing that Kava experienced.
KLIMANYeah. I don't remember seeing kebabs in the '70s at all, even in the '80s. I think my first sighting was probably seeing Moby Dick, there's one in Georgetown, there's one in Bethesda, and that was kind of it for awhile. You might see another one, and just -- it really is, it's probably all within the last 15 years and really, really in the last 10, and it's just...
NNAMDIAnd you will see that Todd Kliman has recommended more kebab houses than burger joints in his Cheap Eats in Washingtonian magazine where he is the food and dining editor. Todd, thank you so much for joining us.
KLIMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMohammad Afzal is the owner of Ravi Kabob in Arlington, Va. Mohammad, thank you for joining us.
AFZALThank you, sir. My pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd A.R. Atash-Sobh works at Shamshiry, a restaurant owned by his father, Bijan Atash-Sobh in the Tyson's Corner area of Virginia. Good luck with your future career.
ATASH-SOBHBless your heart. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYeah. Thank you so much for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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